What is the French New Wave?

What is the French New Wave?

by Clara Avrillier

Updated March 16, 2023

France is the birthplace of cinema. It all began in 1895 when the Lumière brothers first projected moving images to a paying audience in Paris. This breakthrough ultimately led to the development of the film industry as we know it today. Along the way came a radical movement called the French New Wave, which marked a turning point in the French film industry and the film industry as a whole. 

In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the French New Wave movement — from the chief characteristics that define it to the filmmakers who became synonymous with it.

Learn languages at your pace

What is the French New Wave?

The French New Wave was a movement in the film industry in which a rogue group of filmmakers rejected traditional methods in order to make way for a more experimental and innovative approach.

That’s a bit too simplistic, so let’s back up to the 1950s. At the time, big Hollywood studios were dominating the film industry and controlling not only the narrative but also the direction and scripts of any film they produced. In France, the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma brought together film critics interested in fighting back against these corporate studios. They united around the conviction that directors should have full control of their films and be able to show off their artistic identity. 

Together with a new generation of filmmakers, these French critics contributed to shaping what is now known as the French New Wave movement. It ran from 1958 to 1964, with a few additional films produced towards the end of the 1960s. 

Important French New Wave filmmakers 

Some of the leading figures in the French New Wave movement include Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer. Together, they revolutionized cinema and paved the way for many other directors to follow. 

Characteristics of French New Wave films

There are many characteristics that define the French New Wave movement, including:

  • An informal style of filmmaking, which rejected more traditional and classical approaches
  • Innovative film techniques, such as on-location shooting and the use of natural lighting
  • Grittier, more complex narrative themes that eschew pure entertainment and instead aim to challenge the audience
  • Experimental editing
  • Improvisation and spontaneity in place of fully written scripts

The best French New Wave films 

Here are the best French New Wave films, which include some of France’s most famous actors:

  1. The 400 Blows (1959)
  2. Breathless (1960)
  3. Lola (1961)
  4. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
  5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) 

Impact on the film industry 

Although this movement began in France, it had a significant impact on the film industry in general. Filmmakers from other countries began to take notice of the French filmmakers in the New Wave movement. 

Some of these filmmakers would go on to have illustrious careers of their own, following in the footsteps of their French forebears. The idea of rejecting the traditional system and filming in a more individualistic way became a hallmark of some of the greatest filmmakers of the late 20th century, including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. 

Lights, camera, action! 

Even today, the effects of the French New Wave movement can still be felt in the film industry. It is considered a defining moment in the history of cinema — and the source of many incredible films that have stood the test of time. If you’re a film fanatic, try watching some New Wave movies in French. It’s a really fun way to learn the language! 

Learn languages at your pace

Related articles